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Rock Art in the Casas Grandes Region: Report of Seven New Sites and a Review of the Literature

From: Journal of the Southwest
Volume 54, Number 1, Spring 2012
pp. 9-46 | 10.1353/jsw.2012.0012

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The archaeology of Northwest Mexico has received considerable attention since publication of the eight-volume Joint Expedition report of the excavation of Paquimé, the central city of the Casas Grandes culture (Di Peso 1974; Di Peso, Rinaldo, and Fenner 1974). By comparison, the rock art of this region has received far less attention (Mendiola Galván 2002). The purpose of this paper is to review previous reports and add seven new sites to the literature on rock art in the Casas Grandes region.

Adolph Bandelier was the first to report the existence of rock art in northern Chihuahua. In the spring of 1884, he explored Paquimé and the surrounding area and kept a detailed daily journal of what he saw. On May 30, 1884, he climbed to the ruins on Cerro Moctezuma, the prominent sentinel peak between Paquimé and Mata Ortiz. En route, he recorded written descriptions and drawings of two rock art sites. After his death, his wife donated his journals to the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Bandelier's journals for 1882-1884 were published in 1970 (Lange and Riley 1970). The editors of this four-volume work chose to elide certain material present in the original journals, but marked these omissions with an asterisk in the text. Regarding the rock art, they included only Bandelier's written descriptions and an asterisk referencing his drawings. Tomás Jaehn, library curator, provided us with scans from Bandelier's original journal. Shown in figure 1 are the sketches Bandelier made on the day he first saw the rock art in 1884. These are the first illustrations of rock art in northern Chihuahua.


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Figure 1. 

Bandelier's journal, May 30, 1884. (Provided by Tomas Jaehn and published with permission of the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library)

Bandelier described the sketch labeled #1 as a shield with ornaments. Sketch #2, not commented upon in his journal, is clearly a bird, possibly a macaw, known to be important in the Casas Grandes culture. It may be a pictograph because the label seems to indicate that the images in #2 are black and ginger yellow. Sketch #3, termed a horseshoe in his journal, might represent the concentric circles so common in rock art with the bottom portion eroded away. Although Bandelier left what appears to be a detailed description of his outing on Cerro Moctezuma, no one yet has identified the sites.

Norwegian ethnographer Carl Lumholtz was the first to publish images of rock art in the Casas Grandes region. During his explorations in 1891 he recorded rock art in Valle de las Cuevas (Cave Valley) and adjacent areas in the Sierra Madre Occidental west of Paquimé. These images (figure 2), taken from Unknown Mexico (1902) are probably the first ever reproductions of rock art, both pictographs and petroglyphs, in northern Chihuahua. An elderly Mormon gentleman identified as Mr. Nelson brought the existence of these sites to Lumholtz's attention. Local knowledge provided by Mormon families became a common means of locating rock art sites, of which Lumholtz's contact with Mr. Nelson is the first example (Lumholtz 1902).

After Lumholtz, archaeological research in the region was sporadic for more than half a century. In 1958 the Casas Grandes Joint Expedition, cosponsored by the Amerind Foundation and the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia and led by Dr. Charles Di Peso, began an extensive excavation of the Paquimé site. The voluminous 1974 report of this landmark project recorded two rock art sites: CHICH:C:12:3, labeled "Tapiacitas," and CHIH:C:15:23, labeled "Casas Grandes Pictographs." No images were published or any other information about the art provided.


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Figure 2. 

Lumholtz, 1902.

CHIH:C:15:23 is the same site Arnold Withers reported on briefly in 1976. Withers placed the site north of Zaragoza, a community known locally as Willy, along the Piedras Verdes River on a ranch owned by Albert Whetten, member of a well-established Mormon family in the area. The images shown in figures 3a and 3b are from the Withers report.

Eric Kaldahl of the Amerind Foundation provided us scans of...



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